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People with a History/CLGH Book Review:
Scott Bravmann:
Review of Duberman, ed., A Queer World

Scott Bravmann

Review of Martin Duberman, ed., A Queer World: The Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader (New York: New York University Press, 1997), xii + 705 pp, $65.00 c/$24.95 p

from CLGH Newsletter 11:2-3 (1997)

It has been just over ten years since I first heard about and made a small donation to the then-fledgling Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at the City University of New York, and in that time I have received many "invitations" to attend the regular talks, colloquia, and conferences that have become an increasingly important part of the Center's activities. Material constraints, however, have made that impossible for me -- New York City is expensive and far away. Although not all of the organized programs and lectures have appealed to me equally, I have remained one of the many interested observers from a distance who would have liked to have been there to benefit from and contribute to the circulation of queer ideas in the various venues that CLAGS has created. That is, at last, something of a possibility with the publication of A Queer World (and its follow-up companion volume, Queer Representations: Reading Lives, Reading Cultures [New York: New York University Press, 1997]). As Martin Duberman suggests in his introduction, "The purpose of this anthology is ... to make available [to a larger audience and in a more permanent fashion] some of the more substantial fruits of [CLAGS'] work to date" (p. 1).

The fifty-two wide-wide ranging contributions to this volume reveal not only the breadth of queer scholarship across and between the disciplines but also its historical and intellectual depth within them. Like the project of CLAGS as a whole, A Queer World redresses some of the absences from and imbalances in previous queer studies scholarship and publications by taking seriously the critical work of social scientific, biological and psychological, and public policy analyses in thinking through questions of sexuality and gender. Starting with troubled questions of identity, the necessary but (nearly) impossible place to begin, the essays are grouped into five cohesive, if also "porous" (p. 3) parts: on sexuality and gender, histories, mind/body relations, legal and economic issues, and policy questions pertaining to youth, aging, and AIDS.

Part Two, "The Terrains of History: New Stories, New Methodologies" (pp. 177-279), consists of seven essays and the symposium "Twenty-Five Years after Stonewall: Looking Backward, Moving Forward" (pp. 262-279) which includes presentations by Cheryl Clarke, Martin Duberman, Jim Kepner, Karl Knapper, Joan Nestle, and Carmen Vazquez. The individual strengths of these quite different pieces are mutually elucidated and given fresh significance by the way they have been grouped here, offering a comparative perspective on such topics as "Lesbians in Chinese History" (pp. 199-204), "The Lives of French Working-class Lesbians, 1880-1930" (pp. 236-247), and "Homosexuality and the Sociological Imagination" (pp. 248-261) among others. In addition to these historical investigations, several essays explore the nexus between past and present itself as a site of never-simple political and cultural enactment. Historical representation becomes an interesting problem in Yukiko Hanawa's essay on "queer 'n asian" (pp. 39-62) which turns to the discourses of history "to produce moments of productive contradictions that allows [sic] us to imagine how we might become" (p. 57), and it takes on other, rather different shades of meaning in Nan Alamilla Boyd's explicit argument in "Bodies in Motion: Lesbian and Transsexual Histories" (pp. 134-152) that "history ... is a battleground, an intellectual territory that serves political purposes" (p. 137) and in Michael Moon's return to the miscegenated histories of Oklahoma (pp. 24-34) to help excavate their radical, racially diverse, and queer contents from both the "reactionary rhetoric" (p. 33) that has sought to bury those histories and "the cheap if long-established practice of patronizing places like Oklahoma" (p. 26) by those who wish not to know of -- or believe in -- rural America's varied complexities.

In a different manner, though one that is equally engaged with complex questions of the social, Gilbert Zicklin's essay (pp. 381-394) and the four chapters on "Genes, Hormones, and the Brain" (pp. 285-327) look through various lenses to explore the larger cultural, political, and historical dimensions that have been neglected in biological investigations into the (possible) cause(s) of homosexuality. Without calling for the end of such research, these pieces critique and trouble the naively reductionist starting (and ending) points of biological investigations of (homo)sexuality that stabilize sexuality and gender and that take no account of the privileges wielded by scientific forms of knowledge as culturally sanctioned explanatory devices. The chapters on "Homo-Economics" (pp. 467-543) also delve into an important area. There is, however, a pronounced contrast between Sean Strub's capitalist boosterism (despite being occasionally "concerned" [p. 518] and informed about current developments) which plugs the gay and lesbian market's growth and the much more critical skepticism of the essays by M. V. Lee Badgett (pp. 467-476), Michael Piore (pp. 502-507), and Amy Gluckman and Betsy Reed (pp. 519-525). The essays throughout the other sections of the book map a queer world by covering queer lives, looking at queer cultural discourses, practices, and locations, and challenging dominant (mis)conceptions of queer being.

As much as this volume accomplishes in bringing together and drawing out the vibrant and conflicting tendencies within the growing and unstable field, its massive size and scope just as surely point to the problematic subject(s) of queer studies. On the one hand, the more discipline-bound as well as the interdisciplinary work in A Queer World makes it impossible to conceive of queer studies as "a" subject, even if -- or especially because -- its academic, cultural, and political presence can no longer be doubted (p. 270). On the other hand, the multiple differences among queers as subjects in history, revealed, asserted, and addressed here, belie a unified or stable object of study, whatever (inter)disciplinary approach one takes. In terms of this latter point, though "recount[ing] or analyz[ing] the story of an organization" (p. 1) is beyond the stated goals of this book, the question of how the "lesbian and gay" of CLAGS has begun to disintegrate in its own multiple practices, as suggested by many of the essays, might usefully have received some kind of attention at the outset, perhaps offering a brief genealogy of queer scholarship within this important context.

Finally, A Queer World, while definitely and sometimes contentiously queer, is still also very much a world: often unwieldy for being extraordinarily large, multiply-fragmented if somehow variously connected, vastly absorbing in its complexities, and as rich in promise as it is decidedly unfinished. The things we might make of such a queer world as envisioned and enabled by the collective work of this anthology, then, must also be complex, partial, and open-ended.


© The Committee for Lesbian and Gay History [CLGH] is an affiliated organization of the American Historical Association devoted to promoting the study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans* history, and the interaction of scholars working in the field.

Twice a year CLGH publishes a Newsletter which contains extensive reviews of recent books in LGBT studies. This document contains a review from the CLGH Newsletter. Primary citations should be to the Newsletter [and to this site if you wish].

This text is part of  People with a History. People with a History is a www site presenting history relevant to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered people, through primary sources, secondary discussions, and images..

Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use.

© Paul Halsall, November 1998

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